In the Sahara with Richard Harris the Veteran Actor Describes Some of the Epiphanies Connected with His Portrayal of Abraham

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GOD works in mysterious ways. Certainly, Richard Harris believes so.

We are sitting in the sweltering Sahara sun under a tiny scrap of shade provided by a single umbrella. The desiccated, rust-red land stretches uninterrupted as far as the eye can see. After 10 weeks of shooting, Harris has just finished his final scene for "Abraham" - to be aired internationally (on TNT in the United States) on April 3. "Abraham," scheduled to be shown as two 90-minute movies, will in fact be the first installment of a highly ambitious, multinational, 30-hour retelling of the Old Testament. Harris, who plays the title role in this initial production, is clearly delighted with how the filming has gone. "Every day was magic," he says.

But more than that, the actor is convinced the cast and crew were not working entirely alone. He cites the previous day's shooting of the patriarch preparing his son, Isaac, for sacrifice to God. As usual in this area of the world, it was a very warm, still day. "Yet, when the camera turned with me holding the child up - a hurricane," recounts Harris, shaking his head. "I don't know. Coincidence? I think: maybe it was a gift. Maybe it was. Who knows? But I'll tell you, it was frightening."

He also tells of filming the moment when God comes to Abraham and promises him and his descendants the land of Canaan. Three wind machines were on hand to blow a nearby tree. Simultaneously, they all broke. But the director ordered the crew to proceed anyway. "And when the camera was turned on," Harris says, "the winds howled down from the mountains and blew that tree, not to mention the whole area. And when the director said, `cut,' it stopped. And when he said `action' again, it went. Now I know people reading this will say, `Ah, come on, Hollywood rubbish, press rubbish.' But it's absolutely true." Light-years from Hollywood

Harris says the opportunity to portray the Biblical figure was particularly fortuitous. "After the kind of Rabelaisian life I've lived," he muses, "you get to the stage when you realize you are not indestructible. And you begin to think.... So the part caught me at a very good moment."

When questioned further, the actor confides that such thoughts, as a direct result of playing Abraham, have taken a profound turn. " `Abraham' has definitely changed me in my private life," he remarks.

Apart from his knees bouncing up and down virtually non-stop, Harris does indeed give the impression of a more serious, contemplative man than might be imagined. "It's been a terrific spiritual influence, very deep and very moving. I can't tell you how. All I know is that I'm totally uplifted by it.... You know, mostly in movies you get 60 percent or 80 percent of it right. But, in this one, it seemed to have been like somebody was on the phone to me, telling me what to do. It was very strange."

Harris has earned high praise from cast, crew, and resident ecumenical scholars alike. Script co-adviser Vincenzo Labella, who was on the film set every day, echoes the conclusions of the many others with whom I spoke when he says that the actor's portrayal of Abraham was "absolutely superb ... a true masterpiece."

In a movie career that spans more than three decades, Harris has done only a single film for television. He says he decided to accept this second one because Abraham is not merely a marvelous role, but, equally important to him, it was light-years form "Kirk Douglas and Charlton Heston romping in the desert in Palm Springs. …

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